Burn the Critique Letters

As a writer, I have always heard about “workshopping” your work. I have to confess, I am not much of a group writer. Not at all. In fact, even the thought kind of stresses me out. Some writing is too private for me to share until it is ready. Kind of like cooking. You don’t want to take it out too early.

Last week in my intro to writing class, I had a short story of mine “workshopped”. Basically, I sat around, listened to people talk about why I wrote what I wrote, talk about what was wrong with it, talk about what they liked about it and then offered up some ideas or suggestions. Now, there were a few good things that came out of it, ways I could make my story better. Most of them I already knew. But that was it. What mostly came out of it is that I hate workshops and want to burn every single critique letter. Especially in an intro to fiction writing class where the people in the class know what they are doing even less than me.

I do not enjoy having to read 3-4 shitty first drafts of short stories I have no interest in per week, let alone trying to write a “positive” critique letter and then sit around and talk about it. I detest this process. Some of these people in this class most likely fancy themselves the next Tolkien or Martin or Rowling or whoever and they are not. Ugh. I am in this class to hone my craft and learn some technical elements of writing and it has been a disapointment overall. I am not even sure I want to take another fiction writing class. But, not one to give up, I will try it again at the intermediate level this Fall.

I do believe there is value in sharing your work and having trusted people look for holes in your plot and everything else and give you their critique because you know they want you to release the best story possible. But this crap? I am SO not into it. I do not feel like I am learning much and if these critique letters were not such a big part of my grade, I would not bother. Good thing there are plenty of people in my class who like to talk during workshops, I am not one of them.

I found this quote from a guest post on Jane Friedman’s site, and Jennie Nash nails it perfectly:

A group of writers who are not trained to assess problems with a story or argument often get it wrong, or get it partially right, or demand specific remedies—not necessarily on purpose, but by a sort of unconscious group-think approach of what they like or don’t like. It’s not good. It comes without any assistance in how to move forward. You get the “it’s not working” feedback, but not the nurturing and patience you need to fix your problem, and certainly not the editorial understanding you need to prevent it from happening again. People may offer ideas for how they would fix things, or how they see your story or what they would do, but this is a sure path for crushing fragile new projects and wavering confidence.

This is what I have found, and this is what I don’t like. This is also why I used a story I don’t care about because I was definitely not going to use any piece of my novel because that work is deeply personal for me and it is not ready yet. When the time comes, I will select my own group that I think will benefit me. Until then, I am burning all the critique letters.

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Back To School

It’s been a long time. I have not written a public blog in 5 months. I don’t know why, really. A lot of times I think about writing things and then don’t. But, I have it, so might as well use it. And now that I am in school, I am doing a lot of writing, which seems to be inspiring me to do even more writing.

School has been an adjustment, that is for sure. This term, I am gone Monday-Thursday, from basically 8am-8pm. Long days. I attend 2 classes in person at Portland State University: Intro to Fiction Writing and Business Publishing for Writers. One class is online, Critical Theory of Cinema. All of this while working my same full-time job.

At this point, I am in Week 7 of a 10-week term. Hard to believe a mere 4 months ago I had not even thought of this as a possibility. But, one Sunday afternoon in January while sitting in my room my soul whispered “why don’t you go to school for what your heart truly desires?”. If I was going to do something else, why not this?

The one regret I ever had in my life, or maybe the biggest one I had, was that I wished I would have gone to school for writing. I thought many, many times about getting an MFA, but having a Business degree, I needed the critical piece of instructors to give me writing recommendations.

I started with lofty ideas of getting a Bachelor of Arts in English with a minor in Film Studies. After realizing I want to get my 2nd degree as fast as possible and I don’t want to take 2 years of Spanish or minor in Film, I have switched over to a Bachelor’s of Science in English. All this really means is no 2-year language requirement or Fine Art class.

It is becoming more apparent as I journey on in school the subject that really gets me going is book publishing. Turns out PSU has a Master’s in Book Publishing and they run their own press. And, I could visit a literary festival and publishing houses in Scotland over a 2-week span in the summer. So, I think at this point, my end-game is to finish up my Bachelor’s of Science in English, then apply to get a Master’s in Book Publishing.

As hard as this is, I know it is exactly what I am meant to be doing. I feel now more than ever my external pursuits finally, finally match what is in me internally. Besides, in getting this 2nd degree I can see if I have the chops to do the work and succeed at getting a Master’s degree. I am saying all this to say is that it really is never too late. I will turn 48 years old this year and chances are I am older than most of my instructors. But, IT DOES NOT MATTER. For me, this is my formal training ground, to take all the work I have been doing on my own and hone it to a fine, sharp point. By the time I am 50, it is likely I will have a Master’s degree. Oh, and so far, I am an A student.

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A Normal Friday Night

I thought it would be just a normal Friday night. Popped into Fred Meyer right after work to get something for dinner, then decided to leave because I could not find anything I wanted. I was in the store about 10 minutes. On the way in, I noticed one cop car at Starbucks. Nothing unusual, they could have been stopping in or checking something out. On my way out to my car I noticed more cop cars, sirens and more cops arriving by the minute and paused in the lobby to see what was going on. A Fred Meyer employee advised people to leave out of the opposite set of doors, or maybe not leave at all. I debated a minute about leaving but something told me I should stay put. I did not want to be that random dumb civilian who got caught in the cross-fire nor made the situation worse.

A few of us were milling out in the lobby seeing if it was safe for us to leave and wondering what was going on. I could see the cops moving around the Starbucks outside and I realized this was developing into something more serious. And then I heard what I thought be one shot. I could see at least two of the cops with guns drawn, one handgun and something that looked like a rifle. I still had no idea what was happening, except for guns drawn never means anything good.

I could feel the officers emotions skittering around trying to figure out what to do and how to contain the situation. I had no idea what the situation actually was. I am not generally a dramatic person so I am not entirely sure why I stayed out in the lobby, which was enclosed only in glass, rather than going into the store. I also think at that point Fred Meyer had locked the lobby doors that led to the outside. As I was watching, the door from Starbucks opened and the suspect came out, his back to the lobby area, gun drawn, feet planted, pointed straight at the cops. As things often do, time slowed down and that moment is forever crystallized in my mind. I can see him vividly in my mind and realized at that moment how incredibly serious the situation had become and I thought he was going to die.

There seemed to be the longest pause and then the “pop-pop-pop” of gunfire. I didn’t see the cops shoot him or what happened next. I had no desire to watch and I remember scrambling around a little bit and then thinking I should get down to make myself less of a target in the event bullets went astray as I had nothing between me and the situation but glass. Some people were hiding behind a large ice freezer and I think other people ran into the store. I remember the looks on the faces of the people hiding behind the freezer, basically frozen in terror, once the gunshots stopped. Everyone was asking everyone else if they were okay and I just wanted to get out of there.

I was thinking about what I would do if the cops hadn’t got the suspect or if he came in the store, where would be the best place to hide. I went all the way to the back of the store. The fear and the terror was a palpable feeling, not just from myself internally, but others too. I felt sick to my stomach and had no appetite by then. I figured the cops must have killed him or contained him because I didn’t hear any additional gunshots.

Within the next few minutes they put the store on lock-down and I was milling around with everyone else. Some people had no idea what happened, others made the comment about the police shooting someone and then I had some brief conversations with other folks about where they had been and what they experienced and what I experienced. Most people and employees had no idea what happened or why the store was on lock-down.

The lock-down did not last very long and they were letting out people out of the doors on the South side of the store. I walked all the way around the parking lot as the police taped off a good portion of it. Cops were everywhere, up and down 28th from Broadway to the Fred Meyer and of course my car was parked in the taped-off area. I saw the news crews and other people looking on. I ended up talking to one girl about what had happened as she lived in the area and I thought about how to get to my car and get home but I did not want to talk to anyone else about it. I wanted to get home and get out of there. Police officers were escorting people to their cars and I waited a few minutes for the cops to escort me over to my car and then I got out of there. There were a lot of emotions running through me at that time, but overall I was okay and things could have been much worse.

I found out the next day that the suspect was an armed fugitive wanted on a Federal warrant and that the FBI and the US Marshalls were there. This did not make me feel any better. I called the non-emergency line for the police to let them know I had been there in case they needed my information. I read they had taken witnesses on a Tri-met bus and talked to them and photographed them. When I went straight back into the store, my only thought was to get as far away from the scene as possible and so I never did talk to the cops.

I had been texting my brother and one of my co-workers because I thought someone needed to know where I was. I have no recollection of what I was texting and a lot of the moments were fuzzy in my mind. I ended up going to McDonald’s to get food and saw yet another unmarked cop car heading down Broadway to the scene. It is most likely the scariest thing I have experienced to date. My brother came home early to make sure I was okay and a friend came over and I gave them the story as I could remember it.

A shot of whiskey was in order after that experience so he went and got some Jameson, of course. I felt like crying, but didn’t and felt drained and exhausted. My brother and I stayed up late talking about it, I talked to my nephew and my other brother on the phone too. For me it was a matter of processing the emotions of being in the situation. I questioned whether or not I was actually or danger or if I was just making it more than it was. It very easily could have been much worse. I think we tend to do that when we are trying to make sense of something that seems so very senseless.

I am so grateful there was no loss of life and no one else was hurt but the suspect. What a crazy thing to have happened. I’ve been quiet about it because I did not want to sensationalize it anymore that it already was and I needed time to process and think about it. I had a very busy day Saturday and went to work as normal, just telling a few people what happened. I also called a small number of friends and family to let them know I had been there and was okay because I wanted them to hear it from me rather than from a post or something else. We had a holiday work party that night and I had another friends’ birthday party and I was just wiped out from the events of the past 24 hours. I didn’t get out of bed on Sunday until almost 11am.

I don’t feel more scared to go anywhere though I do get a little freaked out when I hear sirens because I now clearly realize what could be at stake. I can only begin to imagine a tiny little bit what the people involved in mass shootings might have felt, or the cops who were called in to handle the situation I found myself in might have felt. I thought about what would cause someone to be so desperate he would pull a gun on cops knowing what the outcome most likely would be and quite possibly could be his death. Lots and lots of thoughts. Even now it seems like I wasn’t there and it wasn’t real and it wasn’t me. But it was. And I was. For whatever reason.

It definitely took me a full day of rest yesterday to feel back to normal. I didn’t even leave the house. Not because I was scared, but I wanted one single day where I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. I watched football and movies and took it easy. I’m still thinking about what happened. I don’t know why I was there, maybe just simply a matter of wrong time, wrong place. One thing that is clear is that you don’t ever know. I could have left the store because I didn’t want to be inconvenienced and wanted to get on my way, but something told me to stay back. I am glad I listened to my intuition because I might have found myself in a much worse situation.

It's July 10th And I'm Still Eating Potato Salad...

All true and left-over from a July 4th celebration.  My grandma taught me and a party-goer requested the recipe and I thought, "Huh.  I don't have a recipe." And so I set out to re-create how I made the potato salad for this event.  Then I decided I would share it here on my blog.  What's for dinner tonight?  The last of the potato salad.  

1 dozen eggs
6-8 Russet Potatoes (6 if large, 8 if a few smaller potatoes)
Steinfeld’s baby dill pickles (I like 10-12)
Dijon mustard
Pickle juice (trust me - it works)
Salt (to taste) optional
Pepper (to taste) optional
Garlic salt or powder (to taste) optional
Celery salt (to taste) optional
Paprika (for garnishment) optional
-Put two large pans of water on the stove on high to bring to boil at the same time (one for eggs, one for potatoes)
-Wash and scrub potatoes
-Cut potatoes into chunks, skin on
-Put eggs in one pan carefully
-Put potato chunks in second pan
-Once eggs come to good, rolling boil, take them off the heat and cover, setting them aside to cook in the boiled water (a good 10-12 mins works, or until you are done boiling potatoes)
-Allow potato chunks to boil until soft, but not mealy (eggs should be good to go at this time)
-Take potatoes off heat and drain in a colander or whatever method works, allow them to cool
-Drain eggs, bathe eggs and allows them to sit in cold water
-Gently peel potato skins off the chunks (I like to use my hands but whatever works), the skins should come off fairly easily
-Put peeled potato chunks back in pan
-Take eggs out of cold water bath and peel one by one, putting in pan with peeled potatoes (if you can get them peeled by the membrane just inside the shell you will get a lot more egg)
-Mash potatoes and eggs together (I like to use a hand potato masher as you can control the size of the eggs and potatoes much better, but again, whatever works)
-At any point, dice the baby dill pickles (I am a horrible “dicer”, so I get them in irregular chunks close to the size)
-Throw pickles in with eggs and potatoes
-Add between 1 ½ to 2 cups of mayo to mix or as little or as much as you like (do start with a lesser amount and add to taste so you do not end up with too much mayo)
-Add between 2-3 tbsp of dijon mustard, or as little or as much as you like (follow same directions as mayo - start small)
-Add in a little pickle juice to cut the mayo and mustard, or none at all (again, start small as you do not want too much liquid)
-Add salt/pepper/garlic salt or powder to taste
*works best to make a day ahead for time to cool down and chill, taste again before serving and adjust mayo/mustard/pickle juice/spices if necessary, but even a few hours in the fridge will allow it to cool

Words In Me

At a young age they claimed me.  And I was forever gone.  Roaming the bookshelves in libraries.  Secreting away books too big and too long for me. I read them anyway.

I could learn anything, go anywhere, be anyone.  Still I remained me.  The same and yet a little different with every word I took in.  Hungering and thirsting, more, more, more! No book big enough.

Until one day I discovered I too had words in me.  And all the words I took in came pouring back out.  The same, but different.  In the coming of my own age I could tell my story to the spaces on my page.  No judgment, no remorse, only release.

A secret space reserved for me.  Freed to fly on wings of speech I said all the things I never could out loud.